Irish Times view on internet infrastructure: lost in the cloud

The most essential functional operations of our digital world are concentrated in a small number of gatekeeper companies

 

The international collapse on Tuesday of websites supported by the major cloud service provider Fastly is yet another in a series of urgent indicators of the need to rethink what the internet has become.

Far from its inception as a network with an inbuilt capacity to avoid a catastrophic shutdown by dispersing data storage, management and traffic flows, the modern internet now has an infrastructure that straddles the globe, yet has its most essential functional operations concentrated in a small number of gatekeeper companies.

Some, like Google, Microsoft and Amazon, are household names. Others are unfamiliar to most people, as Fastly was until this week, even though 10 per cent of the internet runs on its platform. Collectively, these companies provide the cloud services that store and manage the information that underlies websites and the services they provide. Yet the companies are so few that they could be listed in a single tweet.

Everyone from an occasional website shopper to a Taoiseach should comprehend the serious risks that arise from this situation.Two previous pandemic internet outages, involving cloud service providers Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Cloudflare, saw chunks of the web simply vanish for hours in 2020. Such catastrophic failures were due to accidental errors that rapidly affected millions of internet organisations and users. But they should focus international minds on what a targeted attack could do.

Ireland is no stranger to the cloud world, serving as the home to several of the multinationals, and hundreds of the data centres, that are part of the internet’s critical infrastructure. Irish data centres are a largely invisible presence. And yet they point to further problems with the net’s cloud-based infrastructure – dependent on, and devouring the power needed to run entire towns, putting significant pressure on power grids.

Global leaders must grapple with these private companies that now control essential infrastructure, yet remain largely unregulated and unanswerable to a world dependent on their services.

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